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Education And Training For A Wistar Workforce Of Future Scientists

September 10, 2021

Building on educational efforts and a portfolio of education initiatives, Wistar has significantly invested in its mission to train future scientists.

Whether through working with the state of Pennsylvania for the accreditation of a new apprenticeship program in biomedical research, or creating local and international partnerships with colleges, universities, and companies, Wistar is advancing new cutting-edge programs to train nontraditional and underrepresented students for careers in the life sciences.

As an integral part of the Bold Science // Global Impact Strategic Plan, the Institute is looking ahead to strengthen and expand its commitment to education and training over the next five years.

Wistar training programs serve a diverse student population, ranging from high school students experiencing their first biomedical research opportunity, to undergraduate students seeking careers in the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries, graduate students pursuing their thesis research, and postdoctoral fellows preparing for independent careers.

Through recently launched collaborations with European universities, Wistar’s reach has expanded beyond national borders. In the fall of 2020, three Ph.D. students from the University of Bologna, Italy, matriculated into the Wistar-Unibo Exchange Program in Cell and Molecular Biology. They will spend a three-year period at Wistar to complete their graduate training in Wistar laboratories.

“From my own training experience, I knew that working in a lab abroad is a very stimulating and mind-expanding experience and it can bring the best out of students” said Dr. Alessandro Gardini, Wistar assistant professor in the Gene Expression & Regulation Program of the Cancer Center and a Unibo alumnus, who worked to make this program a reality.

A second small group of students is preparing to join the Institute and start their training in the fall.

“I applied to the Wistar-Unibo Ph.D. Exchange Program because working in an excellent international research environment is important for my career,” said Simona Lombardi, one of the inaugural students. “I love Wistar’s commitment to the fight against cancer and other diseases, and since this is what I want to do, it is the perfect place for my pre-doctoral training.”

A year before the Unibo collaboration, the Wistar-Schoemaker International Postdoctoral Fellowship was launched in partnership with Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) in the Netherlands. This postdoctoral training program brings LUMC graduates to Wistar for their postdoctoral training under the mentorship of a Wistar faculty member.

Designed with training in mind, the program also created a connection to establish new scientific collaborations between the two institutions that share several areas of research interest. At the ready to welcome the inaugural trainees, Wistar and LUMC have come together for a virtual seminar series between the scientific leaders and faculty from both institutions to highlight potential collaborative avenues.

“Building more opportunities for international exchange in the training of junior scientists benefits all those involved,” said Dr. Dario Altieri, Wistar president and CEO. “International mobility offers invaluable opportunities for personal and professional development for students and trainees. At the same time, they enrich the host institution with their scientific and cultural background and, when they return to their home countries, they propagate the knowledge they’ve acquired and the scientific approach they have been exposed to. Last but not least, exchange programs create new opportunities for research collaboration.”

As part of the Strategic Plan, Wistar will strengthen its commitment to training programs that enhance equity and inclusion in the life sciences to create a diverse talent pipeline.

Last spring, students from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania kicked off their biomedical research journey at the Institute as part of a new training program co-developed by the nation’s first biomedical research institute and the nation’s first historically black college and university (HBCU). This strategic collaboration between Wistar and Cheyney provides career development opportunities and prepares students for future jobs in science while they earn their degrees.

The first trainees to access Wistar’s brand-new teaching and training lab, Cheyney students learned cutting-edge laboratory techniques through a Biomedical Research Methods course. A second course will introduce them to life science innovation with concepts related to intellectual property, regulatory affairs, and commercialization to show how science extends beyond the lab to solve real-world problems.

The Biomedical Technician Training (BTT) Program, Wistar’s flagship education and training program is also undergoing important changes to meet the growing needs of our students and the life science sector.

For more than 20 years, the BTT Program has opened Wistar’s doors to Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) students for two summers of hands-on training in biomedical research to prepare them for jobs as laboratory technicians and research assistants. To engage a wider student population, the Program has enhanced the curriculum, while condensing the timeline to one summer. To support this work Wistar received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) project grant appropriately titled, ExCEEd BTT: Expansion, Curriculum Evolution, and Enhancement during BioTechnician Training.

“We realized a shorter BTT Program would fast-track trainees into jobs or the next step of their education,” said Dr. Kristy Shuda McGuire, Wistar dean of Biomedical Studies.

Importantly, ExCEEd BTT will expose every student to both academic and industry settings, including full-time laboratory experiences in one of several collaborating local biotech companies.

Curriculum evolution was an important area of focus. The new project-based, Wistar-branded training curriculum is modeled on Wistar research underway in the laboratory of Dr. Maureen Murphy about the impact of genetic makeup on cancer risk and treatment options.

“We are thrilled to welcome students from additional community colleges in Pennsylvania and even neighboring states,” she continued. “This past summer, our number of trainees was limited to 12 due to COVID-19 restrictions, but starting next summer we are planning to increase the size of the cohort each year.”

One goal of the Bold Science // Global Impact Strategic Plan is to launch a Wistar Center for Education and Training. By bringing all our unique educational programs under a single umbrella and integrating these efforts, we can strengthen our commitment to training the scientists of the future in our region and globally.